'This already happened in the US': Experts weigh in on China's respiratory virus surge

Experts say China's current outbreak of respiratory illness is another example of what played out in the U.S. last year when COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus peaked simultaneously, allaying fears that a new virus is behind the surge. 

China is getting hit now, infectious disease experts said, because the country lifted COVID-19 mitigation measures much later than the U.S. and most other countries. This marks China's first full winter without strict measures.

"This already happened [in the U.S.] last year," Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar and adjunct assistant professor at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins, told Politico in a Nov. 27 report. "This is just what you expect — when you give these respiratory pathogens a break, the number of susceptible individuals in your country goes up, and then you can get an outsized outbreak." 

In an interview with CNN, Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and the city of Baltimore's former health commissioner, echoed that analysis, adding, "I don't think the spike in respiratory illnesses should cause global concern" based on what is currently known. 

"What would be worrisome to the international medical community is if a new pathogen is emerging, as it did in the form of COVID-19 in the winter of 2019," Dr. Wen said. "This does not appear to be the case now." 

The World Health Organization requested information from China on Nov. 22 in response to unspecified media reports and surrounding "undiagnosed pneumonia" at children's hospitals in Northern China, drawing the attention of infectious disease experts. A day later, Chinese health authorities presented data that showed an unusual or novel pathogen was not the cause. Instead, they provided the WHO with data attributing the increase in respiratory diseases to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. The rise in pneumonia cases is due to a number of known respiratory viruses that are spreading, as well as mycoplasma pneumoniae, Chinese authorities said. 

China's lack of transparency surrounding COVID-19 data and delay in alerting global authorities about the virus has left many asking: Can the data be trusted? 

"I always think the key is, to quote President Reagan, 'trust but verify,'" Ashish Jha, MD, the former White House COVID-19 response coordinator, told Politico. The U.S. has its own verification symptoms in place, including data on travelers, "to make sure we are not seeing anything different," he added. 


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